A Birmingham lawyer who is the president-elect of the American Bar Association is proposing changes that would do away with judicial elections and make merit-based appointments the national norm.
H. Thomas Wells Jr., a lawyer in the Birmingham office of Maynard Cooper & Gale PC, made his proposal in an op-ed piece in today's issue of The Birmingham News.
Wells is on the right track. He notes that the Alabama State Bar is seeking to end partisan elections for Supreme Court and appellate judges, and instead use a merit-based appointment process. Wells intends to push for that proposal in the state and help take it nationwide.
Wells' ideas are similar to those recently expressed by Sue Bell Cobb, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and the only Democrat on either the Supreme Court or the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals.
What would Wells like to see happen? A nine-member Judicial Nominating Commission would identify top candidates, focusing on ability and impartiality (wow, what a concept!). The governor would make selections from that list. Once appointed, judges would face periodic "retention" elections, in which voters would decide whether to keep them.
Such systems are used for all judges in 15 states and for some judges in 18 others. At the other end, 13 states use nonpartisan elections, and eight states (including Alabama) use partisan elections to elect Supreme Court judges.
Wells and Cobb seem to be well-meaning folks of integrity. But they also are part of the legal establishment, and therefore they probably do not want to shake things up too much. Your humble Legal Schnauzer most definitely is not part of the legal establishment and would have no problem shaking things up a whole bunch.
Our justice system, both in Alabama and across the country, does not need a nip here and a tuck there. It needs a radical sleazectomy. And the Schnauzer stands ready, scalpel in paws, ready to help get the procedure under way.
We will go into the Schnauzer's proposals in detail down the road. But a few quick ideas for now:
* Wells' idea for merit appointment of appellate judges doesn't go nearly far enough. The sleaze starts in the trial courts, and those positions need merit appointment, too.
* Bar associations should push for reform that goes beyond judicial selection. Wherever there is an unethical judge, you can rest assured an unethical attorney is nearby. I'm not sure about other bar associations, but the Alabama State Bar is way too easy on slimebag lawyers. Just consider my own situation: The fact that someone like William E. Swatek still has a bar card--with his almost 30-year record of ethical violations--is a disgrace to the profession. Get rid of the vermin--permanently.
* The American Bar Association should call for judicial oversight commissions with some real bite. Such organizations, including the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, are notoriously worthless. Our courts will never be honest until there are oversight groups in place that lawyers and judges truly fear.
* The above will never happen as long as the law remains a self-regulated profession. That must change. Normal citizens need to be heavily represented on all oversight groups.
Much more on all of this coming down the road.